James K.A. Smith recently blogged about Mark Lilla’ NYT article regarding Obama’s overly intellectualized engagement with the world. As Smith summarizes, Obama and others “lapse into the rationalist whine about people being governed by their passions and keep hoping they’ll be be “rational” like us (we’re not).” Instead, Obama and the democratic party need to understand that the way to lead is “to harness, direct, and channel the passions.”
I want to make two quick comments. First, Lilla criticizes Obama for having the wrong “underlying assumption about human nature.” For Lilla, the problem is ultimately intellectual: if Obama had the correct intellectual understanding of human nature, he would engage in politics differently (meaning correctly, like us). Thus, Lilla’s critique ends up performing the same mistake he criticizes: he tacitly assumes that core force behind Obama’s “intellectualism” is intellectual (and even provides an intellectual history of the mistaken idea). No attempt is made to consider why Obama might resort to a detached, intellectualized description of the democratic losses.
This leads to the second comment, which is, in fact, just a reference to another NYT piece that explores the bind Obama is in as a black president in a country that still fears the “angry black man.” To ask Obama to stir up the passions and exhibit an emotional or passionate outburst is to presume Obama’s anger will be received in the same way as the public anger of a white male leader. Obama knows it won’t. Lilla and Smith err in thinking that the problem Obama must navigate is one of the individual “unconscious” (from Smith’s title). In reality, the problem Obama must navigate is one of the “social” unconsciousness, that is, the problem of being a black leader in a country that still has not come to terms with its own racism, past and present (for another recent example, we have Haley Barbour’s recent comments about the civil rights era and the subsequent reactions).
On a sidenote (which is actually at the heart of the matter), I found it interesting that Lilla gives a subtle but still clear “Eurocentric” and “intellectual” account of the 20th century conflicts. Lilla says, “this balance between enlightened self-interest and moderated passions disappeared in the rapid industrialization of the 19th century. Once self-interest was blessed, there arose a capitalist ideology justifying the limitless accumulation of wealth, and in response to it a socialist ideology justifying the violent defense of class interests. The passions of greed and resentment were excited and set against each other, causing violent conflicts that disturbed Western countries well into the following century.” I wonder whether an “individual” and “intellectual” account of the problem necessitates this abstraction from the colonial dimensions of “limitless accumulation” and “violent conflicts” of the 19th and 20th century including the racial configurations of contemporary American politics. This mistake would then be a contemporary example of what Fanon criticizes Sartre of doing, that is, providing an account of anthropology, community, and politics that fails to describe our social reality because it fails to account for “the lived experience of the black man [sic].”